Poetry at Sangam



PAETE, LAGUNA by Ranjit Hoskote

(for Patrick Flores)

The carver? You mean the Redeemer’s right-hand man. Not a merchant of torsos, hardly that. More like a surgeon, I’d say. He’s studied the lesions of hate, greed’s eczemas, and does sutures if you repent. That’s the Virgin waiting for her diademed head, and those three saints, baby-naked, should soon be wrapped in satin. He’s walking among them, sawdust in his hair, checking lathes, gouges. His nails drive deep into wood made flesh.

He’s handing out scripts to angels, taking them through their paces from raw prototype to flight model. Innocent of paint, gilt, lace and haloes, his martyrs grieve and lust as common clay. He’s crafty. He won’t save them from what awaits: bonded to their slaves, they’ll stand for ever in a chapel or cathedral, piety’s gardeners, wielding instruments of healing and devious hurt.

He counts out the weeks in bruised fingers, wax plugs, lacquer skins, ivory pendants, turning these prayer-soiled bodies, these impious arks of lovesong and lament, into sovereign powers that arbitrate between men and their fate, guard their journeys. Even he, their carver, prays to them: that’s rough water he must cross, its black islands rippling, gleaming like the humps of rutting bulls, and he must swim it in the long fall of light parsed with the raining shadows of gulls. He kneels to the powers he’s brought into the world of sweat and strained muscle: they deflect the bullet from his heart, lift the crumpled shroud of night from his face.

They’re heavier-than-air now, heavier than the kamikaze crows diving in squadrons towards the lake, pecking at the afternoon trawled up in a net of smog. They can depress the earth with their footsteps. They can glide through bolted doors and wall-eyed windows that stare from cracked facades, fly to console those who kneel and confess, begging to be redeemed, to be hatched again, preferably from a golden egg. Tactful parents, they can watch over children who hunt rebels in southern jungles, blow up citadels, hurl grenades in such fast motion that you cannot tell whose side they’re on, whose cause they’ll die for.

Shooting is believing, any moving target promises salvation. They trade binocs for AK-47s, these children watched over by saints, aim rockets at tank convoys and helicopters, take a break from their monitors to spit out wads of gum, spent magazines. Does Counter Strike wake the saints to martial visions? Do they grunt, curse, bellow in their cerulean dreams? Riding in carriages, their wheels squelching through blood, do they direct parades to church, alighting to the beat of snare drums, climbing to their high niches, receiving tributes of hymn and penance?

Outside the church, it’s raining shadows: the gulls are homing, their parole withdrawn by night’s magistracy. The saints play the flickering game of shadow and candlelight in the nave. Only their eyes are real, the eyes of children sparkling in wooden masks. The saints have annulled the seasons this evening: news of conquest and massacre is not whispered, the choir sings heaven’s praises undiluted, the morning shall be laid white as a tablecloth. Redemption is a fine red stroke petering into misty skyline.

Their pasts are safe with their maker, and their dreams: he’s put them away with his tools before shaving, bathing, choosing a starched new shirt for Mass. Night scares him, but with sun in the windows, he’s a relaxed connoisseur, cherishing the crooked timber of humanity, the regularities of the misshapen day.